The cool night air swirled as her dragon swooped down to land in the clearing. With a whoosh the heavy beast settled into the soft meadow. Emeri released her breath, and gratefully unfastened her leather helmet, pried it off her head, and shook out her chin length black hair.
“Perfect landing, as usual, Lady Emeri,” a soft voice called below her as a ladder was gently set up against Petal’s side. One hand took her helmet and the other assisted her down to the ground, not needed but appreciated just the same. Her house servant handed her master a crystal goblet of apple wine. The rider downed it in one long draw, while the servant sighed her disapproval.
The dragon turned her serpentine neck around to sniff her passenger, who chuckled as the young woman pulled a slice of sausage out of her trouser pocket. Petal extended her long tongue to retrieve the treat.
“Good girl, Petal,” her rider crooned, patting her gloved hands against the dragon’s rough scales. “The credit for our landing should go to you.”
“Glad to have you back, my Lady,” the servant said. “By your leave, I will take Petal back to her stable.” She reached out to take back the goblet.
“Go on, now. Make sure she has plenty to eat,” Emeri reminded her servant. The young woman acknowledged with a quick bow and reached up to take Petal’s harness. She led the dragon away, fading as ghosts in the twilight, Lacey with her pale braid hair and white dress, and the huge metallic pink dragon. She stopped, and turned back.
“Forgive me, my lady. I almost forgot —The First Mistress wants to see you upon your return.”
Emeri’s twinkling green eyes suddenly turned stormy, and she stomped off to her rooms.
A few hours later, she emerged, hair brushed, face scrubbed, and cinched into her dress and girdle, Emeri descended the worn stone stairs to the library, where she knew The First Mistress would be sitting in front of a roaring fire, keeping the still cool nights at bay. At the door, she knocked lightly, and prepared her best obedient face. The door opened a crack, revealing a middle-aged blonde woman in a white dress.
Upon recognizing her face, the woman frowned as if her presence was disturbing the peace. “Good evening, Lady Emeri. The First Mistress will see you now.” She opened the door, and Emeri straightened up, lifted her chin, and walked in.
The walls were covered in bookcases that stretched up three levels, with a tall ladder on wheels in the corner. The two tall narrow windows on the opposite wall were swathed in heavy red silk, keeping out chill. Three chandeliers stretched down from the ceiling, covered in glowing lamps safely enclosed in glass. As massive and imposing as the scale of the library, an equally imposing small ancient white haired woman with white hair sat wrapped in grey down-stuffed coverings by the fire. Her shadow seemed to fill the room, and her wrinkles rearranged into a questioning stare as Emeri approached. A slight nod toward a chair was command enough for Emeri as she took her seat facing the older woman. The servant exited the room quietly and closed the door.
Emeri knew she should not speak first, but she couldn’t help herself. She was sixteen seasons old now, a full grown adult, not a mere timid child. “Blessed First Mistress, I pray that your days have been full of grace, and your evenings full of peace.” It sounded like an appropriate greeting toward an elder.
The old woman closed her eyes and sighed. “Just when I’m certain you’ve come into maturity, you have to jump right in and make a mess of things. You can’t even wait a moment for us to address you.”
“But First Mistress, by law I am your daughter. Aren’t there some privileges that I’m due?” Emeri just managed to keep the whining tone out of her voice.
“The law does not do away with courtesy. Remember your lessons, and they will serve you well.” The older woman paused to take a cautious sip of her steaming tea. “Thimble poured you some tea. Drink some to calm yourself.” She nodded toward a side table that featured a silver tea service.
Emeri pulled herself out of the overstuffed chair and retrieved her cup. Then she sat down, and obediently sipped her tea, hoping that the steam would cover the reddening of her face. Moments hung in the air between them until the First Mistress decided to talk.
“Now that you’ve reached your sixteenth season, it is time for us to plan your marriage. Even though you are an awkward tiny little thing, you manage to clean up well, and of course you have the finest clothes and hairdressers. My steward, Nathaniel, will create a list of potential suitors, and we will entertain them for the Flower Festival coming up. We should have just enough time to get everything together by then.” She fixed Emeri with a stern gaze that invited no criticism.
“But First Mistress,” Emeri said through clenched teeth, “The dragon ride to Silverpoint always takes place during the Flower Festival. The DOGs need me to ride sweep. There’s going to be at least fifty riders from our kingdom going. I can’t miss it.” Her stomach curdled, and she hastily set down her teacup and saucer before she threw it into the fire.
“That brings us to the next subject,” The First Mistress continued, a tiny smirk appearing in her wrinkles. “Your inappropriate obsession with dragon riding will stop. It was suitable as a hobby when you were a child, but now you are too valuable to risk yourself up in the skies, holding onto a beast!”
“A beast?” Emeri barely kept her voice to a ladylike volume. “Petal is not a beast! She’s my best friend!”
The older woman sighed again and shook her head. “That proves our point, Lady Emeri. Now that you are a woman, you will find friendship other places. Perhaps if you are blessed by the Moon Mother, you will find it with your husband. This dragon nonsense ceases at once.”
Emeri knew that arguing with her foster mother would do no good, but her heart was breaking, and tears threatened her composure. She had known that The First Mistress did not approve of her dragon riding, but she never thought she would forbid it. There was no recourse. At least openly.
“Blessed First Mother,” she said instead. “I know that my life is to serve the Woodland queendom. My fate is in your hands, to do with as Sun Father and Moon Mother would reveal to you. I also know that a marriage alliance will strengthen our land. With such a destiny before me, could you fault me for seeking what pleasures I can find before I must play my role? Such a small thing, like the Silverpoint ride, would make it easier for me to attend to my courtship.” She held her breath and waited, her face controlled in respect.
The First Mistress lifted her eyebrow as if she didn’t expect this answer from the most difficult of her children. She drained the rest of her cup, and set it delicately back in its saucer, and placed it on her side table before answering.
“We are encouraged that you are ready to accept the responsibilities of your position. Perhaps a small indulgence like a last dragon ride would not be too much to ask. You may join the Silverpoint ride, and during it find a buyer for your dragon. You will have no further need of it when you return.” She gestured slightly with her hand, which Emeri knew was her dismissal. She tried not to fall on her face as she hastened out the door in her satin slippers.
After climbing up the stairs, unlacing her corset as she went, Emeri collapsed in her velvet dressing chair near the window. The full moon bathed the room in shades of blue that turned to purple as they mixed with the pink hues of her fireplace. She finally lost all control, and collapsed into sobs. A door opened, and Lacey came quickly to see what was wrong.
“Oh, Lacey!” she sobbed. “First Mistress is going to send Petal away. I have to stop riding! What am I going to do?”
Her servant wiggled into the chair next to her and put her arms around her. “Don’t cry, my Lady. She’ll know you cried if your eyes are puffy.” She pulled out a scented linen handkerchief. “Take this. You’ll think of something. You always do.”
The dejected young woman wiped her eyes, and looked out the window, looking for an answer somewhere. Her eyes glowed in the moonlight, and her face settled to stone. Emeri had always tried to be a mostly obedient daughter, at least as far as anyone knew. But now she was an adult, and needed to think for herself. She couldn’t live without Petal and dragon riding. She would have to think like a dragon rider and come up with a solution.
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